One fine spring morning at Belmont Park about 12 years ago, outrider Jim Dailey hoisted his 4-year-old grandson, Wesley Ward, onto a thoroughbred in the stable area just to see how the boy would look up there. Suddenly trainer Dennis Ward, Wesley's father, playfully gave the horse a slap on the rump, never expecting that the horse would move. But the thoroughbred took off toward the training track. A horrified Dailey, who spent most of his career catching loose racehorses, started running after it. But not to worry. By the time Dailey reached the horse and rider, Wesley had pulled the thoroughbred up and turned him around. "Boy, I bet you were scared when that horse ran off," said the relieved Dailey.
Replied little Wesley, "No, Pop, I just said 'Whoa, you son of a bitch!' "
Ward, now 16, has cleaned up his mouth since then—in fact, he scarcely talks at all—but he still has that cool composure on the back of a hot-blooded horse. Last February he shipped into the New York area from his hometown, Selah, Wash., and in less than 10 months rode 335 winners, was the leading rider at both the Belmont and the Meadowlands fall meetings—simultaneously—and earned $5,188,642 in purses. On Jan. 8 he was named the winner of the Eclipse Award, the equine Oscar, as the leading apprentice jockey in the nation. "Yeah, I was going for the Eclipse," says the laconic Ward, who stands 5'3", weighs 100 pounds and still wears braces on his teeth. "I set a goal for myself, and I decided to work as hard as I could to obtain that goal. I gave it 100 percent."
That's no surprise, considering his breeding. Wesley is by a former (1962-63) leading apprentice jockey in New York, Dennis Ward, out of Jeanne Dailey, by Big Jim Dailey, former steeplechase rider and for 29 years an outrider—one of those men in scarlet hunting coats who lead the horses to the post and keep order on the track—for the New York Racing Association. Big Jim loved children (he and his wife, Irene, had seven) and animals (he was Belmont's unofficial gamekeeper, feeding the wildlife at the track and freeing the ducks frozen in the infield pond), and when his eldest child, Jeanne, gave birth to his first grandson, he started making plans for the boy. Wesley Alan Ward weighed in at 8 pounds, 2 ounces on March 3, 1968; the next week his father, Dennis, weary of fighting weight, rode his last race. He would become a trainer in Arizona and Washington.
"My father taught me to ride," says Wesley. "I started getting on a pony at 10. In the winter when I was 11 my dad started breaking horses and he'd let me ride them around the track." By the time Wesley was 12, he was riding his father's horses on the rough-and-tumble fair circuits of Washington, British Columbia, Alberta and Montana, making about $100 for each winner and learning the basics: breaking from the gate, jockeying for position, using the whip. He rode the fair circuit through the summer of '83, winding up that part of his career with a remarkable record of 158 winners in 300 races over four years.
The Wards traveled to New York once a year to see Jim and Irene Dailey, and in August 1981, when Wesley was 13 and back East for the annual family get-together, his grandfather introduced him to Lenny Goodman, the most famous jockeys' agent in America. "My grandfather told Lenny I was going to be a jockey," says Wesley, "and that he should handle my book when the time came."
That September, Dailey, 54, died. But that conversation wasn't forgotten. Two years later, Jeanne wrote to Goodman:
"I'm writing you concerning my son Wesley. He wants to ride in New York, and he would like you to be his agent.
"My dad was Jim Dailey, the outrider. ...It was Dad who told us that when Wes was ready, he'd get the best for him, and that was you, if you were able to handle him, and nothing would please our family more, except we wish Dad were still here to help make all these arrangements for Wes."
"It was a sentimental letter," said Goodman recently, standing in his usual spot in the racing secretary's office at Aqueduct, smoking his usual $2 Partagas cigar and watching the races on closed-circuit TV. "Jim was an old friend. So I took Wesley right away, sight unseen."
On Feb. 3, 1984, Wesley arrived at his aunt Barbara's home in Elmont, N.Y., ready to try big-time racing. The only snag was, he was a month early. You can't get on a horse at a New York track until you're 16 years old. Frustrated because he couldn't so much as exercise real horses, Wesley kept in shape by riding surrogate ones. "He rode every piece of furniture in the house," says his aunt, Barbara Dailey Santangelo. Indeed, there's a snapshot of Wesley on his postage-stamp saddle, crouched on the arm of the Santangelos' couch, head down, hands grasping imaginary reins, whip cocked. His intensity and concentration jump right out of the photo, and you know that couch arm is going to cross the finish line first. He also rode his cousin Veronica's German racing bike around the neighborhood, practicing switching whips over and over again.
Finally, Wesley's big day came. On March 3, 1984, his 16th birthday, he rode three horses at the Big A—and was shut out. The next day Goodman booked him on three more, and in the seventh race, on his last horse of the day, Wesley came through. His 10% share of the $13,200 purse looked pretty good after all those $100 payoffs. In his first five days he had five winners, thereby losing the first of his three weight bugs, which may be about the fastest any apprentice has ever done that. (He'll lose his final five-pound allowance in April.)
Wesley never looked back after that. He'd gallop horses in the morning at Belmont and ride seven or eight races at Aqueduct; then, when the Meadowlands in New Jersey opened its thoroughbred night meet on Sept. 1, he became a "bridge-and-tunnel jockey." He would catch a car ride across the Hudson, mostly with his friend jockey Nick Santagata, and ride another seven or nine races in Jersey. He was giving it 100%. Up at 5:30 some mornings, he wouldn't get home to Elmont until 1 a.m. Didn't he get tired?
"Nah," says Wesley. "Being young helps." Aunt Barbara tells another story. "There would be nights," she says, "when he could barely make it up the stairs to bed."
He did get a little time off during the year. A 10-day suspension for careless riding at Saratoga in August cost him his mount in the Travers Stakes—and possibly the riding title for the meet—but at least it gave him a break, just as a fractured elbow, suffered when he was thrown from a horse, gave him a three-week respite in March. During his suspension, Ward did something unusual: He spent money on himself. He'd become Wesley Ward Enterprises Ltd. in May and had earned a lot of money, but he'd had no time to spend it. So now he did what any 16-year-old would do—he bought a car, a black 1984 Thunderbird. There was just one difficulty: He wasn't old enough to drive it in New York State. And so until he turns 17 the car will sit in the driveway of the Elmont home he and his mother leased in April.
Wesley is described by Goodman as "a real little gentleman." When Steve Cauthen was wowing the racing world in 1977, his apprentice year, he was described as "a 40-year-old 16-year-old." Wesley has a similar temperament. He's quiet, well-mannered and polite, displaying a maturity far beyond his years. His tastes are very conservative: gray pinstriped suits, brown tweed sports jackets, a black car.
Perhaps he feels that what he does defines who he is better than words or trendy dress can. He was an honor student from the day he started school. He played youth hockey in Yakima, Wash. and his team once beat the Little Canadians, a highly regarded mite team. He played Tee-up Baseball, participated in track and field, got first place in wrestling in his weight class at the AAU high school nationals and even played running back for the Selah Vikings—"but very carefully," says Jeanne.
Always the aggressive athlete, the doer, not the talker, Wesley is a source of puzzlement as well as pride to his mother, an outgoing person. On a recent afternoon in Elmont, a small contingent of the Dailey clan gathered: aunts Googie and Barbara, cousins Donnie, James and Veronica, Ward's girl friend, Laura Ferlito, and her mother, Grace. As in all big families, everyone talked at once.
His aunts urged Wesley to show video tapes of his races. Jeanne crossed the room and started to fiddle with the VCR, only to be brushed aside by her impatient son, who can work the machine better and faster than anyone. And there he was on Mayanesian, a 5-year-old horse, breaking from the gate in the Engine One Stakes at Belmont. "This is my favorite race," he said. "That horse really tried for me." What he doesn't say is that the Engine One was his second stakes win in one day, Oct. 20, his first having come in the To Market. The TV commentator asserted that no apprentice had ever won two stakes in a single day.
When Wesley left the house to keep an appointment, out came his baby book, brought from Selah by his mother. "We've got to look at this fast, before Wesley gets back," said Jeanne, "otherwise he'll kill me." In the book was a poem written in March by Charlie Bogart, Jim Dailey's brother-in-law, about Wesley: "We saw him Jim/We saw him ride/His hands are great/ And he's tough inside/.../We know you were there/When he turned to come in/Did you see him fly/Did you see him win?/We saw him Jim/And he's Grandpa's pride/He's a winner all right/Did you see him ride?"
As the Daileys know, you don't have to be a horse to be a thoroughbred.